A Streetcar Named Sellwood

May 28, 2019

By Jay Cosnett

This photograph, taken between 1909 and 1914, shows the Kiser Movie Studio and a Portland trolley. Its unidentified location on OHS Digital Collections led to an interesting research mission that indulged Web Strategist Jay Cosnett’s interests in historic photographs and Portland’s transportation history. Credit: OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co. photographs, Org. Lot 140

Long before I joined the Oregon Historical Society staff in 2014, I was fascinated with historic photos of Portland. Images from the past provide a wonderful way to feed my interest in learning the history of streetcars, interurban transportation, and Portland’s urban development. Having an understanding of that history, it now saddens me to look around the city knowing that exactly one hundred years ago you could ride electric railways across the city — faster than we can today — on lines that many of our modern light rail, street car, and bus routes still duplicate. When OHS launched its digital collections site in 2017, I found a photograph that documented this period in Portland’s history when widespread public transit reigned, but its location was unidentified. This provided a perfect opportunity to indulge my intertwined interests.

Inspired by Vintage Portland’s “Help Us Out!” tag, where employees at the City of Portland Archives and Research Center crowdsource information on unidentified image locations, I decided to conduct a bit of my own research.

The OHS image in question (featured at the top of this post) shows a streetcar passing a crew of track workers, with a large building labeled “Kiser Studios” in the background that was identified as the Kiser Movie Studio in the online description. The high-resolution scan enabled me to easily see two key details: the streetcar was on the Sellwood line, and it was traveling on Milwaukie Street, which ran north to south between what are now SE Powell Boulevard and SE Tacoma Street. I happen to know this area well and approximated that the streetcar was in the Brooklyn neighborhood based on the upslope of unidentified cross street — the area around Milwaukie in Sellwood and Westmoreland is relatively flat, whereas the Brooklyn neighborhood sits atop a hill to the west.  Since the cross street slopes uphill away from the camera (toward the west), it meant the camera would have to be facing north.

Kiser Movie Studio and trolley (detail). OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co. photographs, Org. Lot 140, Gi c 418; box 7, folder 8, bb000320

Kiser Movie Studio and trolley (detail). OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co. photographs, Org. Lot 140, Gi c 418; box 7, folder 8, bb000320

Details in the Kiser Movie Studio and trolley photograph provided clues that ultimately led me to determining its location at what is now SE Milwaukie and SE Center Street. Those details included a street sign and the streetcar line name (Sellwood).

I was determined to find the Kiser Studios location on my own — I mean, SE Milwaukie isn’t that long — but after failing to see any similar buildings on Google Maps Street View, I turned back to OHS Digital Collections for help. An image showing the Kiser Studio’s retail store (situated just north of the Kiser Movie Studio in the original mystery image) gave me the final clue needed to solve the location mystery. 

Kiser Studio retail store and movie studio in background. OHS Research Library, Kiser Photo Co. photographs, Org. Lot 140, Gi c 420, box 7, folder 8, bb000321

This photograph from the same time period shows the Kiser Studio retail store with movie studio building in background. The building still stands on SE Milwaukie Avenue and provided enough information for me to identify the location of the former Kiser Movie Studio building.

The two-story brick structure was distinctive enough that I was easily able to locate it on Google Street View at the corner of what is now SE Milwaukie Avenue and SE Bush Street. As of May, 2019, it was listed as the home of Western Toy Manufacturing Company.

After my triumphant discovery, my colleagues in the OHS Research Library informed me that simply checking Portland city directories for Kiser Studios was a more direct route for finding the image location. In this case, Polk’s Portland City Directory listed the Kiser Photo Company in 1915 and 1920 at 773 Milwaukie.

Polk’s Portland City Directory 1915

In the 1915 Polk’s Portland City Directory, the Kiser Photo Company listing in boldface shows its address as 773 Milwaukie.

Finding current street addresses for properties listed prior to 1933 is a bit tricky due to the City of Portland’s ambitious street renumbering project that took place between 1931 and 1933. In order to find the modern address that corresponds to “773 Milwaukie,” you need a key. One version, Directory of Streets and Street Numbers, is available at the OHS Research Library and another is available online at the City of Portland’s Archives & Records Management's e-files site. Thanks to the key, we now know that the former Kiser Photo Company studio is located at 3833 SE Milwaukie Avenue.

Left: Kiser Movie Studio and trolley. https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/kiser-movie-studio-and-trolley  Right: SE Milwaukie Avenue and SE Center Street today.
Left: Kiser Studio retail store and movie studio in background. https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/kiser-studio-retail-store-and-movie-studio-in-background Right: SE Milwaukie Avenue and SE Bush Street today.

There are many photo-location mysteries waiting to be solved. Besides posts tagged “Help Us Out!” at Vintage Portland, our own digital collections site contains countless others, including one that was posted to our Instagram account several months ago that as far as I know remains unsolved. Perhaps you will be the one to solve it!

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